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Heavy Weather Revisited

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The US national news at present is dominated by the imminent arrival of “superstorm” Sandy to the Northeastern coast. Like most of us in the US now, my thoughts are with my family members, friends and work colleagues in that region.

Please prepare and be safe, everyone. (Especially my sister, who, according to a Facebook update, was “kicked out” of Atlantic City today. This time, it’s for your safety, too, sis.)

That said, you’d have to be living in a cave to be unaware of how extreme our weather has become. In the US this year, summer temperatures hit new highs in many places. Globally, we have had massive hurricanes, snowstorms, tsunamis (remember Japan last year), earthquakes, tornadoes, you name it. And with the extreme weather have come human casualties. It’s a convergence of two global trends: climate change and overpopulation. We have over 7 billion people spread across the planet now, so any storm is likely to encounter a populated area.

It seems no longer useful to deny the effects of climate change. As partially explained here a few days back, the fearsome potential of Sandy comes from the convergence of multiple climate effects, including a tropical storm, a nor’easter, the jet stream, “blocking” effects, and the full moon. A perfect storm, if you will, that owes some of its historic force to climate change. The rapid decline of polar sea ice, for one thing, has warmed the seas, and warm seas add energy to tropical storms. So we’re likely to see these storms hit harder further north in the future. It’s just one result of global warming.

Reading about the coming storm also reminds me of Bruce Sterling’s 1995 cyberpunk novel Heavy Weather, which I re-read earlier this year. The novel tells the story of a band of tornado chasers called “The Troupe,” in a near-future version of West Texas-Oklahoma. Climate change in the story has advanced to the point that tornado alley becomes virtually unlivable for all but the most renegade or weather-obsessed.

The story follows The Troupe as they chase after an F6 tornado, a huge, never-seen-before superstorm. The fictional F6 tornado, like the real hurricane Sandy, is something of a climate change-driven convergence of forces that don’t normally converge, full of fearsome power that threatens to destroy the book’s protagonists.

Lots of good action and adventure, of course, but it’s not the plot that makes Sterling’s 17-year-old novel so fascinating to me today. It’s his very prescient description of a possible future socio-economic-ecological environment. The near-future world of Heavy Weather has economic collapse, social collapse, and environmental collapse all rolled into a world that’s beginning to look a lot like ours. It’s even got out-of-control Mexican gangs, food shortages, and driverless cars to boot.

A brilliant work of futurism, really.

So it’s safe to say some folks saw superstorms like Sandy coming. Like global warming, the data trends have been there for years. If we take climate change seriously, it may be possible to mitigate our impacts on the environment, and thus potentially on weather patterns. Sure, a lot of people would have to do a lot of things differently, but our only alternative might be to learn to love heavy weather.

Author: Eric Kingsbury

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